Former Mexican defence minister arrested in United States on charges of drug trafficking and laundering money

The former Mexican defence minister has been charged with drug trafficking and laundering money while holding public office, U.S. prosecutors say.

Gen Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested at Los Angeles airport on Thursday.

He is due to make a court appearance on four charges in California on Friday.

His charges include conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to the US.

Prosecutors accuse Mr Cienfuegos, a retired general known as “The Godfather”, of helping the H-2 Cartel – “an extremely violent Mexican drug-trafficking organisation” – smuggle drugs into the US.

“In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel – a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder – to operate with impunity in Mexico,” prosecutors alleged in a court document released on Friday.

Prosecutors say they have evidence of communications between Gen Cienfuegos and a senior leader of the H-2 Cartel.

They have requested that Mr Cienfuegos be held in detention until his trial, arguing the general poses “a significant risk of flight”.

Should he be convicted, the former defence minister could face a jail term of ten years or more, prosecutors say.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the arrest “serves to illustrate that the main problem in Mexico is corruption”.

President López Obrador, who was elected on an anti-corruption platform in 2018, has accused his predecessors of running a “narco-government” that allowed corruption.

He is seeking to lift the immunity of former leaders from prosecution.

Gen Cienfuegos, 72, served as minister from 2012 to 2018, under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

His role as the most senior member of the armed forces meant he played a key role in Mexico’s war on drugs.

Gen Cienfuegos is not the first former Mexican minister to have been arrested in the US.

Last December, former Security Minister Genaro García Luna was charged with taking bribes from a drugs cartel.

Mr García Luna, who was Mexico’s top security chief from 2006 to 2012, is currently on trial in New York, accused of allowing the Sinaloa cartel of “El Chapo” Guzman to operate in Mexico in exchange for millions of dollars.

He denies all the charges against him.